Togiola to Citizenship plaintiffs: “Ask first"
Gov. Togiola Tulafono has a message for the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit at federal court in Washington D.C. challenging the constitutionality of federal laws that deny U.S. citizenship to persons born in American Samoa: “First, ask the opinion of the people of American Samoa”.
The lawsuit, described by the governor in Samoan as “fa’alealofa”, or action without love, surfaced on the governor’s weekend radio program after a female caller asked for Togiola’s opinion on this issue.
The governor’s response is reminiscent of Congressman Faleomavaega’s response, who has said that he believes it is an issue that should be settled by the territory’s people, and not in a federal court.
The caller noted her husband had served in the Iraq war and taken the U.S. citizenship test, yet the lawsuit, as reported by the news media, has military veterans as plaintiffs.
The lawsuit identifies three plaintiffs — Fanuatanu Mamea, Emy Afalava and Va’aleama Fosi — as military veterans and alleges in the complaint that they have been denied recognition as U.S. citizens while residing in the U.S. and in the military because they were born in American Samoa and consequently were the denied rights of a citizen, including the right to vote in federal and state elections.
Mamea and Afalava currently reside in the territory while Fosi is a resident of Hawai’i.
At the core of the lawsuit, filed by local attorney Charles Alailima, along with a Washington based law firm and a think tank group, Constitutional Accountability Office, also based in the nation’s capital is, the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs believe this clause applies throughout the United States, including American Samoa.
According to the suit, the Citizenship Clause says: “All persons born… in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States...”
The plaintiffs were born in American Samoa, “Therefore, they are U.S. citizens by virtue of the Citizenship Clause.”
On his radio program the governor said he respects the plaintiffs citing this clause; and before continuing, apologized to those who will be affected by what he had to say about the lawsuit.
For those serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, the governor said, there is nothing stopping any of them from becoming a citizen, adding that being in the military expedites the citizenship process and this has been in place for some time now.
And then he said this entire issue of citizenship is being pushed by attorneys and others — who are keen on being automatic citizens if they are born in American Samoa — and they want everyone to follow along.
He says any American Samoan who wants to become a citizen can do so and provisions of the federal laws remain available to U.S. nationals wanting citizenship. However, he says American Samoans in the territory cannot vote in the U.S. presidential race even if they are citizens.
For example, he pointed to residents born and living in the territories of Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico., who are U.S. citizens, but cannot vote for the U.S. President.
(This has to do with whatrights U.S. territorial born residents are entitled. Dating back to the late 1800s, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a series of cases — collectively referred to as the “Insular Cases” — where the Court decided which rights were “fundamental” and, therefore, applied by the force of the Constitution such as: freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In Downes v. Bidwell (1901), the court decided that the right to vote was not “fundamental,” so pursuant to the Territorial Clause, Congress could withhold the right to vote in federal elections.)
Togiola says American Samoans in the territory are able to participate in federal elections through the local congressional race and voters do not need to be U.S. citizens for those races. The governor claims that residents of the territory are being misled that being a U.S. citizen would allow them to vote in U.S. elections — especially in the presidential race.
To the plaintiffs, the governor said, “don’t drag all of us along because you want to be citizens. Why force all of us along in your cause of wanting to be a citizen?”
For those who want automatic U.S. citizenship for being born on the U.S. soil of American Samoa the governor said, “you should have asked first what the rest of the community wants” and described the lawsuit in Samoan as “fa’alealofa”, or an action without love.
He said there is only a handful of those wanting citizenship, and this lawsuit should never have been filed until the plaintiffs sought out the wishes of the rest of the community.
The governor went on to say he wants to maintain his status as a U.S. national, adding it’s important to him to maintain his Samoan ancestry, maintain his national status linking him to the U.S. family, while his personal rights remain within American Samoa — his home of birth.
Togiola says he wants to hear people’s opinion on this issue, and perhaps this lawsuit has expedited the need for more discussions on citizenship. “Let’s talk,” he said and reiterated that the plaintiffs should have first sought the opinion of the people of American Samoa on this matter.
The 2007 report by the American Samoa Future Political Status Study Commission includes this same issue of whether or not people born in American Samoa should become U.S. citizens. The Commission recommended in the report that “American Samoa not seek U.S. citizenship for its people at this time”.
The report notes a number of proposals were introduced in the U.S. Congress to grant citizenship to American Samoans and the last serious effort was through a bill (H.R. 4500) sponsored by the U.S. Interior Department in 1948 as it was preparing to assume the administration of the territory. The bill was later withdrawn after a DOI officer conducted a survey of local leaders, who objected at the time to the measure.
See Samoa News edition on July 12 for details of the lawsuit and Samoa News July 16 edition for Alailima’s reaction to concerns over the lawsuit.